Exposure to Two Languages May Benefit Babies’ Development

There are many misconceptions on raising children in a bilingual environment. Although experts have previously explained otherwise, some parents still worry that it may cause speech delays, confusion, and mixing up of the two languages.

Here is another inspiration for parents to expose their children to more than one language early. According to a recent study, as early as infancy, it gives an advantage to the early development of their attention. And in the long run, it could give benefits to their cognitive development.

In a study published in Developmental Science, researchers at York University investigated how a bilingual environment affects six-month-old infants using two different experiments.

As they lay in a crib, infants were shown images in a screen above them. Meanwhile, there was a camera which records how their eyes move in different areas in the screen. Half of the infants on the experiment were raised in a monolingual environment, while the other half were raised in a bilingual environment.

During the first experiment, the infants were first shown images which are indicative of whether the next target image will be shown on the left or the right. For example, if the screen shows a pink and white image in the center, it will be followed by an attractive target image on the left. Meanwhile, if a blue and yellow image appeared, it will be followed by a target image on the right. These rules could be followed by all infants.

In the second experiment, the researchers changed the rules halfway. Tracking the babies’ eye movements, they found that those who were raised in a bilingual environment were quicker at learning the new rules and anticipating where the target image will appear.

The researchers highlighted that learning the new rules is difficult because the infants need to replace their response on the images with a contrasting one. Scott Adler, associate professor in York’s Department of Psychology and the Centre for Vision Research and co-senior author of the study explained:

“Infants only know which way to look if they can discriminate between the two pictures that appear in the center. They will eventually anticipate the picture appearing on the right, for example, by making an eye movement even before that picture appears on the right. What we found was that the infants who were raised in bilingual environments were able to do this better after the rule is switched than those raised in a monolingual environment.”

Previously there were studies which demonstrated how bilingual children and adults were better than monolinguals on completing cognitive tasks. However, this new study is revolutionary as it shows the cognitive benefits of bilingualism to infants who are not bilingual yet, and are just hearing the bilingual environment.

“By studying infants — a population that does not yet speak any language — we discovered that the real difference between monolingual and bilingual individuals later in life is not in the language itself, but rather, in the attention system used to focus on language,” said Ellen Bialystok, Distinguished Research Professor of Psychology at York University and co-senior author of the study. “This study tells us that from the very earliest stage of development, the networks that are the basis for developing attention are forming differently in infants who are being raised in a bilingual environment. Why is that important? It’s because attention is the basis for all cognition.”